Have you ever had to inform an employee that neither you nor the customers paying for the $20,000 deck you’re building are interested in seeing his low-slung pants and plaid boxers? How about having to tell someone that beer at lunch and power tools in the afternoon aren’t a good mix?

One would think it would be obvious that the above-mentioned antics are inappropriate on a job site. Alas, it isn’t so. Some folks need to be told. But as the boss, you have better things to do than read the riot act to each member of your crew on an as-needed basis. While you’ll never completely escape the chore of reining in unprofessional or unsafe behavior, you can provide yourself with some relief by using an employee manual. It’s a solid way to let employees know what’s expected of them and to prevent misunderstandings about jobs, policies, and your company. The “Well, I didn’t know” excuse will no longer echo in your ears.

An employee manual not only guides your employees but also helps you and your business. It provides a clear path for you to follow so you can enforce policies more consistently — which makes you a better boss. It can increase productivity by shortening the time necessary for training. And though it cannot possibly cover every situation that could arise, a manual can reduce your company’s liability should a lawsuit be filed.

What to IncludeA manual does not have to be a tremendous undertaking and can be as long or short as you like. There is no “perfect” manual. Yours should reflect the size of your company and the policies and procedures that mean the most to you. List what you want your employees to know. The most basic employee manual will have the following sections.

Statements of nondiscrimination and anti-harassment. These are important. Several states and some federal laws require certain employers to establish and maintain anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. Even if it’s not legally required for your company, it’s a good idea to have these policies in writing. Doing so makes it clear that certain behavior will not be tolerated, and it may also provide a defense in the event of a lawsuit.

Hours of work and pay periods. Employees need to know when to show up and when they get paid. If you expect longer hours out of your people during peak season, then state that. Also include information on time off for absences, illness, holidays, and vacation.

Safety and accident procedures. Personal protective gear, procedures for accessing high spaces, and what to do in the event of an injury are all things that should be addressed in this section. It may sound like a lot, but you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. A Google search for “employee manual, safety” will retrieve several good examples you can customize for the safety needs of your own company. Look at OSHA regulations (osha.gov) and your state requirements.

Use of company property. Clearly explain your policies on the use of company tools and vehicles. Your liability insurance company may also have requirements for coverage of your vehicles when being driven by an employee — be sure to call your agent and find out what is required.

Dress code and professional behavior. State what you require of your employees during the work day. If you don’t want sleeveless T-shirts on your work site or you require shirts with the company’s logo, say so. This is also where you tell employees how well you tolerate harsh or colorful language.

In addition, include your drug and alcohol policy and a section on termination of employment. You may want to address benefits, too — what they are and when they start and the timing of reviews.

Once you complete your manual, distribute it and make sure your employees read and understand it. You may want to hold a meeting to explain its contents and allow for questions. Give the manual to new hires and redistribute it to all employees when you make significant changes to it.

“I Agree” FormThe “I Agree” form is a simple form an employee signs indicating that he or she has read, understands, and agrees to abide by the policies and procedures laid out in the manual. Give the form to employees when you give them the manual and make sure they return the form to you signed; then file it as proof that they read the manual and agreed to its terms. If there is ever a problem, you’ll be able to point to the signed agreement.

Nuts and BoltsYou’ll be surprised at how much of the work is done when you’ve put to paper the rules you already have in place, like policies on pay, hours, dos and don’ts, and vacation. In addition, resources are available online — simply searching “employee manual” will yield many good ones (see sidebar, “Online Resources”). You can also hire a service provider to create a customized manual based on the parameters you set and the state you live in.

Once you’ve drafted your manual, you might want to let an employment attorney take a look at it. Laws differ by state and county.

Making ChangesChanges will be necessary as your company evolves and new issues come up. This isn’t to say you need to revise your manual every time you have a brilliant idea. In fact, it’s probably more important to apply the policies and procedures existing in your employee manual than to add to it. You want to be consistent. The manual helps you be consistent. Changing it more often than absolutely necessary will eat away at the very consistency you are trying so hard to attain.

So if you make changes, do so infrequently and only when critical. Otherwise, you will send a mixed message to your employees, who will respond something like this: “Yeah, the boss wants what he wants and it’s in the manual, unless he changes his mind, so watch your back.” You might want to schedule an annual review of your manual for making improvements and necessary changes. This forces you to think about whether your manual coincides with what you expect from your employees, and it lets your employees know that once a year they may see a change or two — and that you do indeed take what’s in the manual seriously.

Online Resources

  • Sample Employee Manualsfreebusinessforms.com/free-business-templates/free-employee-handbook-template.html
  • entrepreneur.com/formnet/humanresourcesforms.html

OSHA Small Business Handbook

  • osha.gov/publications/smallbusiness/small-business.pdf
  • Sample Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Statementssmallbusiness.findlaw.com/employment-employer/employment-employer-discrimination/starting-business-employment-anti-discrimination-policy.html